A Ship’s A Fool To Fight A Fort
Well, there’s an old adage that’s stood the test of time … or has it? ComNavOps is a student of history and a believer in the lessons it has to teach. On the other hand, ComNavOps is also a questioner of history and an analyst. Is this adage still true? Let’s take a closer look.
[note: this post is inspired by comments in a recent post and I thank the various commenters who contributed to the discussion]
The adage is credited to the Royal Navy’s Admiral Nelson and dates back to the age of sail. In that time, the adage was literal. It referred to a ship and a fort fighting a cannon duel. Today, the meaning has evolved to encompass a much broader scope but we’ll come back to that. In the age of sail, the advantage was completely with the fort. The fort was almost invariably at a higher elevation and could fire down on the ship. The fort was generally constructed of massive stone and earthen works which were extremely resistant to cannonballs. By comparison to a ship, the fort generally had larger magazines, a larger “crew”, and often larger guns. The ship had limited and predictable maneuverability due to its dependence on the winds. The fort was a fixed target but the ship was not much more mobile!
In short, the fort held a massive advantage over a ship. It’s no wonder the adage was born – it was true!
Is it still? If it’s not, what has changed to invalidate it?
The ship has changed. Ships are now much faster, more maneuverable, somewhat stealthy, and can appear and disappear at whim. If one considers submarines as ships, they have become extremely stealthy. However, for purposes of this discussion, we’re going to exclude submarines as a special case that the adage was never meant to apply to. Ships can also launch aircraft and from great distances. Ships can now engage a “fort” without ever being detected.
The fort has changed. The term “fort” has come to mean all of the surrounding and supporting land rather than a single fixed fortification. Thus, land based aircraft, long range, land based, anti-ship missiles, long range artillery, and the supplies in the surrounding area have all become part of the “fort” and none need to be in the same physical building or even in the same local area. An airbase can be hundreds of miles from the “fort”, and still be part of the “fort’s” defenses.
So, both the ship and the fort have changed but have the changes altered the traditional huge advantage that the fort enjoyed? Well, it’s obvious that the original adage is no longer relevant and meaningful. It applied to a very specific and localized scenario that no longer exists. Thus, there’s no point discussing it.
So, moving on, what is the modern version of the adage? The meaning of the adage has changed to mean that a ship can’t survive within range of land based weapons so I guess the adage, now, is,
A ship’s a fool to approach land.
Now, the question is, is that true?
Well, by way of partial answer, here’s another adage,
The seat of purpose is on the land.
Recognizing the timeless applicability of that, ships have no choice but to approach land. The only question is how to do it and do we have ships that are designed to operate and survive near land (recognizing that “near” can mean within a thousand miles, today)?
Let’s look at history, briefly, for some guidance. WWII was a continual demonstration of the viability, effectiveness, and survivability of ships near land (within a hundred miles, back then, instead of a thousand miles). The US Navy routinely conducted near-land operations in the face of determined resistance. Yes, some ships were sunk but only a relative handful.
Consider the example of
Okinawa and the kamikaze attacks. This
is an excellent example of ships fighting a fort – the fort, in this case being
the island and all the land based kamikaze aircraft supporting it. The fort/kamikaze had the advantage of huge
supplies of weapons (the kamikaze aircraft) and an unending supply of pilots –
typical fort/land advantages. The ships,
however, succeeded, and quite handily if not without damage and death. If memory serves, none of the carriers,
battleships, cruisers, or transports were sunk.
The picket line destroyers and escort vessels paid a price but that was
their function and they performed it quite well. The ships fought a fort and won completely.
A more recent example is the Falklands War. The British fleet fought a fort/land and won, though not without losses. In fact, the conflict served to illustrate the inherent difficulties in locating a naval force at sea, even one tied, operationally, to predictable areas. It also demonstrated the difficulty in assembling and conducting an effective, co-ordinated attack against mobile naval forces.
Let’s look at a less successful example that borders on the classical scenario. The British/French Dardanelles campaign in WWI involved an attack by several battleships and cruisers (albeit old/obsolete ones) against the straits held by the
Ottoman Empire. While the direct ship versus land gun duels
appeared to have favored the British/French ships, the ships were routed due to
the presence of mines. Several ships
were sunk and damaged and the operation failed.
Without the mines, the ships would have succeeded. With the realilty of the mines the ships
failed. Whether one views this operation
as validating the adage or not depends on whether one views mines as part of
the fort/land defenses or part of a navy versus navy conflict. The net result is that the mines were there as
part of the fort/land defenses and the attacking force was unprepared to deal
with them. This simply demonstrates that
the attacking force must be properly equipped to approach land and deal with
the fort/land defenses. Ill-prepared
forces are going to lose in any scenario!
History, then, suggests that there is no particular problem with approaching land as long as the attacking force is prepared for the defenses that are present.
So, where does the balance of favor lie today? I believe it lies with the ships.
While the fort/land side of things retains the traditional advantages of large magazines in the form of “unlimited” aircraft, missiles, artillery, and manpower, the mobility and stealth advantages of the ship side of things more than negates the fort/land advantages. The ultimate truth is that you can’t shoot what you can’t see. All the aircraft and missiles in the world are useless if you can’t give them targets and a naval force that can remain hundreds of miles out to sea is a difficult target to find. Conversely, the fort/land defenses are largely fixed and known and very susceptible to cruise and ballistic missile attack.
The biggest advantage the fort/land enjoys is the ability to “flood” the skies with surveillance aircraft. If it can do that successfully and locate the attacking naval force then it can prevail. If not, it loses. However, those same aircraft are vulnerable to destruction from cruise/ballistic missile attacks on their airbases either directly by destroying the aircraft on the ground or indirectly by destroying the airbases ability to operate aircraft in general.
So, I see no prohibitive reason why ships can’t operate near land as long as they are prepared and equipped for it. Modern history (WWII and on) bears this out. Thus, the traditional adage is no longer meaningful and the modern version of the adage is untrue.
Today’s overly timid naval strategists seem to feel that the risk of losing even a single ship somehow proves that a ship can’t operate near land. Partly, this comes from a lack of operational wisdom and experience (given that we never practice these kinds of operations, it’s kind of understandable) and partly from a risk aversion due to the staggeringly expensive cost of modern ships. Losing even one would, indeed be a disaster because we only build a very few ships due to the cost. Ships have become too expensive to risk doing the jobs they were built for!
The remaining issue that stands out from this discussion is mines. Setting aside the almost semantic debate about whether they constitute a fort/land’s defenses or a naval on naval battle, the fact is that mines are, and will be, a major factor in operating near land. Any attacking naval force had better be prepared to deal with them and prepared to do so while under fire. The US Navy is woefully unprepared to do so. Again, though, mines do not invalidate the ability to operate successfully near land as long as the attacking force is prepared for them.
So, the prevalent belief that
A ship’s a fool to approach land.